Hacker News and pseudonymity

Mark Suster has a post about improving civility on YCombinator’s Hacker News:

I’ve seen vitriolic responses on HN on several occasion. I mostly get hammered on HN if I write about a controversial topic like criticizing Apple (in fact, what prompted me to write this post today was that I was asked on Twitter to write a post about Facebook. I have been avoiding it because I wasn’t up for the inevitable public pummeling this week). […]

In fact, I was reluctant to write this post because I know it’s likely to lead to the inevitable bashing on HackerNews, which unfortunately also spills over into hate emails that some people from HN send me personally (no prizes for guessing my email address).

His suggested fixes include:

1. Make all users post under real names that you verify — This in and of itself would help temper comments. It’s totally acceptable to me for people to harshly criticize my points-of-view. No problem. But calling me a f***ing a**hole or some of the other epithets used goes too far. If people used real names and if these were crawlable and searchable in Google the transparency alone would help regulate people. Not everybody but many. HackerNews doesn’t need to be JuicyCampus.

Better still add photos the was Disqus and Quora do. It humanizes everybody and drives more civil conversation. As Paul said in his blog posting, “don’t say anything in a comment thread that you wouldn’t say in person.” Photos drives this closer to reality.

No. No no and again no.

Strong moderation is possible without compromising anonymity or pseudonymity. And Suster’s suggestion of requiring real/verified names can actually worsen the situation for some people. Suster quotes Paul Graham, saying, “Don’t say anything in a comment thread that you wouldn’t say in person,” but that sounds like the voice of someone who’s never received abuse or harassment in person. People aren’t ashamed or afraid to make abusive comments under their own names, and the necessity of using real/verified names will only exclude those who don’t want abusive comments to follow them back to their own email inboxes (as Suster himself experienced) or worse, their homes or workplaces.

Suster and Graham may not have noticed (they’re not the target audiences, after all), but women online are regularly admonished to use pseudonyms to protect themselves. Many websites with a culture of pseudonymity — LiveJournal and derivative sites are an example — have a very high proportion of female members, perhaps in part because of the sense of privacy and security that pseudonymity brings. A site which requires real/verified names is automatically flagging itself as a potentially/probably unsafe space for women, or for anyone else at risk of harassment, violence, job discrimination, and the like.

People sometimes speak as if pseudonymity is the same as anonymity, or suggest that pseudonymity is nothing more than a way to avoid accountability for one’s words. It’s not. Persistent pseudonyms (those used over many years and perhaps across multiple sites) can accrue social capital and respect just as “real” names can, and be subject to the same social pressures towards civil behaviour if the community has a strong culture of respect. Without a culture of respect, real names won’t help. With it, real names won’t matter.

There’s more about pseudonymity on the Geek Feminism Wiki.

15 thoughts on “Hacker News and pseudonymity

  1. Restructure!

    In person, people treat me in a gendered and racialized way. I like the pseudonymity of the Internet, because strangers respect me more, since they address my words instead of closing their ears and addressing what they think someone like me would say. I can even write stuff without people interrupting me mid-sentence, which is great.

  2. codeman38

    There’s another thing that really bugs me about the real names thing, that a lot of people don’t even seem to consider.

    Some people have extremely common names like “John Smith”, and can be difficult to track down even with their real name displayed. Others may have names that, while uncommon, still belong to more than one person. And then there are those people who are, quite literally, the only person in the world with their name.

    Pseudonyms address both ends of this spectrum. Nobody has to worry about being mistaken for another John Smith because they can all use different pseudonyms. And someone who’s the only person in the world with that name doesn’t have to reveal the most intimate details of their identity as a result.

    1. Terri

      I’m one of those people with an uncommon name. Ages ago, I wrote an article about installing linux on my laptop which eventually made it into the giant collection of such articles.

      A few years ago, some stranger called me, at work, to ask for help setting up his laptop. Relatively unique name + not hard to find out where I work. Thankfully, he called the main office number and the admin staff was sufficiently suspicious that they ran interference rather than forwarding him directly to me.

      Now, asking for laptop help is pretty benign, and if he’d just emailed me I likely would have answered the question. But there are lines, you know? I certainly don’t want strangers calling me at work with completely unrelated questions! I’m not sure the commenting masses really understand those lines very well.

  3. Bakka

    This post is spot on! Thanks for writing it. Back in the day when there were BBSes rather than blogs, I experienced internet stalking because my pseudonym at the time was not sufficiently anonymous. It was a horrible experience and I had to involve the police. I would not go on the internet again with something close to my real name.

  4. Trix

    Totally agree. Firstly, how on earth do we guarantee our “real names” to people we’ve never met? I’m not going to reveal personal information about myself to random people god knows where. Leaving aside harassment and privacy issues (sure I’m going to post TMI stuff under my real name, not), there’s the increasing worry of identity theft.

    Secondly, anonymity does not prevent me as a moderator from deleting offensive comments (whether or not I’ve got an official moderation policy, although it is courteous to have one). Simple housekeeping FTW.

  5. Mark Suster

    You’re right – as a man I had never considered the unique privacy & security issues of women. Thank you for opening my eyes to this issue. Kind of obvious once you hear it! Thanks.

  6. RAWR

    I’m commenting here and not on HN, because I am a secret girl on HN!

    I don’t share your concern about harassment; I am very publicly a girl in other parts of the internet and it doesn’t bother me. Sometimes I like it, because I enjoy it when people insist I am not a girl because I hold such-and-such a viewpoint (which has mostly gone away since I joined 2x on reddit). For some reason this amuses me.

    But I like the anonymity on HN because I find it interesting to see how people upvote/downvote and respond to my comments when they believe, for sure, I’m a man. This is unique (among the places I frequent) to HN because it’s so male-dominated.

  7. Andy Wingo

    Very interesting post, thank you. Don’t know if you recall advogato, but I liked that site a lot, especially because there were no pictures, that I would have to do that words-to-person mapping without much input beyond the words themselves.

    I think you did gloss over the socializing aspect of names. True, some people are assholes in person; but attaching names does make them pass a first filter. Still though, I’m convinced by your and Audrey’s defense of pseudonymnity.

    I would enjoy hearing your thoughts regarding civility-promoting (loaded word?) mechanisms. I am inclined to think the answer is to split from HM, which has really taken a misogynistic bent lately, especially in submissions.

  8. mr3aoj

    Real names are why I no longer contribute to HN. I used submit and comment under my real name and then got groupthinked to -8 (worst possible score) on a couple comments on a thread for expressing a different opinion as politely and non-confrontationally as I could (yeah, obviously I’m biased here, but I don’t want to link it).

    So then I had a big “You don’t belong” sticker attached to my real-name profile on the most-respected forum for my profession. Super. I left enough blase comments to push it off the front page and now I don’t contribute anymore, as hard as it can be to resist the urge to link the resource that nobody else knows or share my experience.

    Real names raise the stakes of contributing. Increased civility is a common side effect but by no means assured.

    1. Skud Post author

      If you feel safe and comfortable doing so, feel free. Just don’t expect anyone else to.

  9. Steph

    Interesting discussion. But I think that most are looking at the problem from the wrong perspective though. While there is some value in establishing somebody’s identity in terms of encouraging thoughtful discussions, there’s also something to be said for anonymity online. Think of the act of whistle-blowing. Society would be better off if for instance the oil-well employees were able to anonymously call out the executives that forced them to break safety codes or whatnot. Maybe the entire oil spill could have been averted. Vitriol directed towards somebody, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing if it helps others. Yes, it can be damaging to some. There’s a lot of hate on places like http://www.dirtyphonebook.com that encourage this type of anonymity. But there’s also some social value in the concept of anonymity that I think has yet to be realized. The man cheating on his wife or the woman stealing from her boss, there are situations where the world needs to know about these things but you can’t report tell people without some risk to yourself. There needs to be a good way to do this, IMO. Anonymity is a good thing in certain contexts, even though I think many disagree.

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